Dutton's Brentwood Books, among the best-known and best-loved of Los Angeles' independent bookstores, will close on April 30.
It is hard not to take this as a sign of the times.
Over the past few years many local independent bookstores have gone the way of the local movie theater, the local hardware store and the local stationery shop -- disappearing -- as much victims of a changed retail and commercial real estate environment as a victim of our changing consumer and lifestyle habits (more on that later).
All my favorite haunts of my post-grad years in New York have vanished: Books & Co., the Madison Bookstore, Canterbury Books, Shakespeare & Co. In Beverly Hills, no general bookstore remains, only Taschen's retail outlet. In Santa Monica, we have lost bookstores big (Crown) and small (The Book Nook in the Country Mart).
However, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that best-selling author, we have come not to bury Dutton's but to recall the good times.
First some history: Doug Dutton's parents were booksellers and ran Dutton's in North Hollywood, which Doug's brother, Davis Dutton, took over after them (and then closed in early 2006). Doug Dutton opened the Brentwood location in 1984.
Dutton's extends across several different rooms on the ground floor of a two-story building on San Vicente Boulevard, and at its heart is a central courtyard that seems tailor-made for readings and book parties. The site also provides ample parking behind the building (an important draw in Los Angeles).
The two-story U-shaped building, with its stairways lining the central courtyard, have always reminded me of those Bauhaus-style structures that dot Tel Aviv and are meant to express a functionality in harmony with the Mediterranean climate and an indoor/outdoor lifestyle. How toddlers love those stairs! How parents eyed them nervously!
Duttton's itself occupies almost 5,000 square feet. The main room, on the west side of the building, is filled with literature, mysteries and current non-fiction in both hardcover and paperback. To the north is housed the non-fiction, as well as music offerings and audio books; to the east are the children's room, the travel books and cookbooks, and the gift and stationery items and, a relatively recent addition, a cafe.
The whole place always had a ramshackle feel, with frayed carpets and crowded shelves. Each area is its own empire, and one felt free to wander among them, and trusted to take a book from one area to the other without being accused of running off. The staff has always been friendly, knowledgeable and, on occasion, eccentric (Dutton's had a staff poet in Scott Wannberg).
Oh the book signings and parties I've attended at Dutton's! Lots of white wine and cheese cubes under the bridge. Dutton's was a place where you went to support your friends, to buy copies of their books, to hear them read. I recall attending events for friends such as (alphabetically) Robert Cohen, Roger Director, Seth Greenland, Mona Simpson and Deanne Stillman (and those are just ones I remember). Dutton's was a place you took your out-of-town friends to show them what Los Angeles had to offer in book culture. It was where you took your author friends to ask Dutton to let them sign copies of their books. It was a place you went to get a peek at your writing idols when they came to town.
I myself had one or two book events at Dutton's, and the feeling of sitting behind the counter and looking out at a room of friends and readers crowded between the display tables was a heart-warming sight for any author. It made a writer feel, for a long moment, part of a community.
Dutton's was old school: I had a house account there that allowed me to sign for books for which I was billed monthly; my 10-year-old daughter had signing privileges on my account. I had imagined the day would come when she would have her own account, but that is not to be. (This reminds of the time my father was approached about buying a "lifetime membership to a health club," and he replied, "My lifetime, or your company's?" He outlived that business by several decades.) So it goes.
No more stopping by on a Saturday afternoon to wander among the display tables, to run into friends, to discuss new books, to recommend favorites. No more going to get a signed first edition of a friend's new work (talk about an author's heartbreak: Mark Sarvas was scheduled to read from his new novel, "Harry, Revised," at Dutton's in early May; Dutton's closing on April 30 forecloses that, as well).
Which brings me to Dutton's closing -- who to blame and what to do about it?
One could blame a world in which handbags regularly sell for more than $1,000, where coffee can cost more than $4 a cup and a tart frozen yogurt is a $5 treat as explaining a retail environment that demands a greater return than books can deliver. Or an inflated real-estate market that calls on developers to achieve a greater return than the current structure can deliver -- but Doug Dutton himself will tell you that the developer who owns the building, Charles Munger, who plans to redevelop the property into something more high-rent, is not the villain here. From Dutton's announcement of his store's closing:
"Given our situation as it now stands, the pride we feel in our past achievements, and the vagaries of the current book market, shuttering our doors seems the only realistic solution. It is important to note that Charles Munger has committed to a significant amount of financial support for the difficult process of closing the store, and we appreciate his generosity."
In 2004, Dutton's opened a Beverly Hills branch with incentives from that city, but when those conditions changed, the bookstore could not continue and closed at the end of 2006. More than anything, it was the difficulty of being a bookseller in the current marketplace.
I remember a conversation with the owner of the Book Nook before it closed. He told me that people's habits have changed. Today, the majority of bestsellers are purchased for 40 percent off at Wal-Mart or Costco. The small book that becomes a success because of independent bookstores has become as rare as the independent movie that succeeds by word-of-mouth -- it happens, just not often enough to sustain a business.
There continue to be, and there will be continue to be, great independent bookstores in Los Angeles, from Skylight Books in Los Feliz and Book Soup in West Hollywood to Village Books in the Palisades and Equator Books in Venice.
However, this is the way we live now: If you want to see a busy bookstore, go to an airport. The enemy, as Pogo said, is us. I need only look to my own buying habits. If there's a book that I know I want, either a new title or an obscure one, I will often buy it from Amazon.com or AbeBooks.com. I spend a certain amount of time browsing at Borders or Barnes & Noble, but I can't tell you the last time that I bought a book there because of a bookseller's recommendation (at press time, Border's has put itself up for sale). Times change, customs and behavior changes and Dutton's is just one sign.
I stopped by Dutton's this week, and while I won't go as far as to call it a shiva visit, as I crossed the courtyard I spied two successful TV writers bemoaning Dutton's closing. Seeing Doug Dutton, one woman got teary, talking about how she had grown up with Dutton's and what the loss of the bookstore and its community means to her.
Which brings me to another point. Dutton's, like any good independent bookstore, represented more than a retail enterprise, and its closing affects our quality of life. The question then becomes one of whether we could change the market reality of bookstores. Can we instead protect, encourage, support and value those aspects of places like Dutton's that mean so much to us?
Where will we go to get that sense of community, that feeling of being in a place where books are a valued part of our culture? Where can I take my daughter to imbue her with that same sense?
In a world where the bookstore is less and less viable, where do we go to find like-minded others of all ages who enjoy books and other cultural delivery systems such as graphic novels, comic books, games, videos and CDs? Where can we go to see and hold in our hands not only current titles but also a long tail of widely diverse offerings -- where will we find knowledgeable guides to help us find what we are looking for or make suggestions? Where can we go to see our literary idols?
Perhaps Dutton's closing is a sign of our times. I will miss it, and we -- our community, our city, our world -- are the poorer for its loss. Perhaps the bookstore is no longer commercially viable. But we need not abandon the bookstore experience.
Again, I can only turn to my own experience. I will tell you where I go: To the public library.
Recently I stood at a display case in the Beverly Hills Public Library reading original copies of letters written by Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Last week, I was at the Central Library to hear Richard Price talk about his new novel "Lush Life."
Perhaps when Dutton's closes we need not feel we've lost all we value.
Have you visited the Santa Monica Public Library's new main branch? Not only is it airy and comfortable with plenty of parking, not only is there a great kids area that has books and computers with games, but for those who got used to associating a bookstore with noshing, it also houses a great and reasonably priced cafe.
Stephen Schwartzman of Blackstone Group recently announced a $100 million gift to the New York Public library -- a rare but inspired gift. More often the case these days is the library that is laying off staff and is hard-up to buy new books. Those that thrive do so with community support. It will take more donations and public support to libraries and "friends of the library" groups to keep our cultural communities strong. However, if the marketplace can't support bookstores, and we still believe that books bring people together, we will all have to do our part to affirm the value in people coming together in a place that values books.
The above article originally appeared as a Tommywood column in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and at www.tommywood.com